Partisan is a frustrating film, steadily building tension for an hour and a half and then abruptly cutting to black just when things are heating up. It’s an unfortunate case of cinematic blue balls.
Set within a cultish commune populated entirely by women and children except for the enigmatic, charismatic leader Gregori (Vincent Cassel), a kind of father figure-cum-headmaster whose benevolence belies his manipulations, Partisan focuses on the growing tension between Gregori and Alexander (Jeremy Chabriel), a star pupil with an inquisitiveness that runs afoul of Gregori’s need for unquestioning obeisance. As played by Cassel, Gregori is friendly, great with the kids, and beloved by the women of the commune. He seems to recruit women who have endured trauma, offering them a respite from the violence of the outside world.
Honestly, the commune doesn’t seem so bad, and it’s not hard to see why people would be willing to give themselves over to Gregori. As long as you’re willing to follow his rules, his commune is not a bad place to live, and Gregori treats the women and children with what seems like genuine love. There’s even a weekly karaoke party! The only real problem is that it’s all funded by hit jobs carried out by the kids.
Expertly shot by DP Germain McMicking and featuring a wonderful synthy score by the great Daniel Lopatin (better known as Oneohtrix Point Never), Partisan looks and sounds wonderful. I could watch exquisitely lensed sequence shots set to ominous synth drones all day. Throw in Vincent Cassel giving an exceptionally calibrated performance — his kindly voice drawing you closer as his weird, scary eyes ward you off — and I’m pretty well set.
But Partisan is too austere to really grab you emotionally, and it’s world is too lightly sketched to bring you in intellectually. What you’re left with is an allegory of cultural insularity that never digs deep enough to tell us anything we don’t already know. Director Ariel Kleiman, who co-wrote the screenplay with Sarah Cyngler, clearly positions Gregori is a stand-in for all of our social institutions. He is the church, the government, and the judiciary all in one. He provides food and safety and entertainment. And he is the sole source of knowledge and morality. If he says to kill, who is Alexander to question him?
This is all fine as far as it goes, but that’s not all that far. The movie ends before it has really gotten anywhere, thematically or narratively. Partisan’s trajectory is clearly leading to a confrontation between Gregori and Alexander, which the film does provide, but this scene serves more as a means of underlining the film’s themes than as a dramatic climax. Kleiman wants to embed us in the narrow worldview of the commune, a dystopia where murder is unquestioned. In creating a counterpoint to Gregori in the figure of Alexander, Kleiman suggests a more fundamental morality. But the clash of these two ideologies unfortunately produces no real sparks and no deeper insights before the movie abruptly shuts itself down.